Change Careers By Changing Industries: From Luxury Goods To High-End Real Estate
If you’re looking to change careers, transferring skills you already have from one industry to another is an excellent way to get on a new career path and still incorporate all the valuable experience you have already amassed. Susanne Rhow was looking to change careers to better balance career and family. She moved her sales and marketing background from a traditional corporate role in luxury goods to a more entrepreneurial career in high-end real estate:
Caroline Ceniza-Levine: How did you get from luxury sales and marketing to real estate? How long did it take?
Susanne Rhow: I have always enjoyed changing careers and expanding my skills in interesting and diverse ways - I think one brings the best from their previous experiences to their new career. I have extensive experience in luxury goods and services, having worked for firms like Saks Fifth Avenue, Estee Lauder International and Sotheby’s Auction House.In addition, I’ve gained a lot of international experience with my previous jobs and educational pursuits.I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Seoul, Hong Kong, Paris, London and Stockholm, as well as many cities here in the U.S. Being a “global citizen” is an asset as I’ve recently joined the global luxury real estate firm Engel & Völkers. They have over 5,000 brokers in 540 offices in 38 countries around the world.
As I now have a young family, I was looking for ways to use my luxury and high net worth client skills in a new career that provided a more flexible schedule than the normal corporate career path.Since I love sales and beautiful homes and interiors, it seemed like moving into luxury real estate could be a good fit for my skill set and my personality. It is also liberating to be truly entrepreneurial and earn what you are worth – you aren’t at the mercy of budget cuts or lack of bonus opportunities.
Ceniza-Levine: Did your career change require any special certifications, program, coaching or other investments?
Rhow: It took me about 6 weeks to study for and pass the New York state real estate exam but it wasn’t difficult at all. I found that much of what I learned for the test isn’t necessarily all that useful in the day to day life of a real estate professional, but you needed to know it to pass the exam! However, passing the test is meaningless unless you find a firm that will take you on as a salesperson. Finding the right firm that provides a positive environment and culture takes some homework and due diligence – but absolutely necessary if you want to succeed in this business. One aspect of real estate that you have to wrap your head (and wallet!) around is the reality that you don’t collect a steady paycheck anymore. You earn commissions based on what you sell so it is a culture shock to expend so much energy and passion yet sometimes for months have nothing financially to show for it. Therefore you’ve got to mentally “coach” yourself into accepting this reality in order to give yourself enough time to succeed in this industry.
Ceniza-Levine: What skills from your previous careers helped you successfully make this transition?
Rhow: Having a strong business background gave me the analytical tools to look at this career change strategically and objectively. I also did preliminary research to find out if this new career could be a good fit. For example, before I invested the time and money to take the real estate courses, I thought it important to meet enough firms to see if they felt I had the skills and personality to succeed. After all, why waste energy moving forward if you receive negative feedback on your chances of success? Better to cut your losses at the beginning based on solid feedback rather than blindly forging ahead.
When I started in this business I was told to pick a particular neighborhood to focus on and work my personal network of contacts. But I had a different background from most salespeople and took a different approach.So I relied on my previous Business Development skills to analyze how I could differentiate myself from the thousands of other brokers here in the city. What in my past could I leverage to truly set myself apart? How could I be smarter and more efficient in growing my business than the average new salesperson? With this mindset, I created a Business Plan (several in fact!) that targeted specific business niches where I felt I could differentiate myself.
As in most things in life, a little luck is always involved. Just as I was starting, I was introduced to a very successful broker, Christine Miller Martin, who had a very similar business background to mine before becoming a broker. In fact, we were introduced to each other because I requested to meet someone else who had made a successful transition from a prior career. In speaking further, we realized that we could be successful if we teamed up together and worked our networks from our previous business lives. It has thus far proven to be a successful strategy that we feel will only grow over time.I’m not sure that without my previous business background I would have been able to map out so clearly what I felt the business opportunity was and how to achieve it. This also involved a great deal of proactive marketing and building your niche foundation while also doing the business at hand. It takes discipline to build and grow a business – especially one like real estate that involves cultivating and nurturing relationships.
Ceniza-Levine: What was least helpful, or a strategy/ activity you thought would be fruitful but wasn’t?
Rhow: At the beginning, it was easy and comfortable to hide behind all the marketing I needed to do to develop our market niche. There were always letters to compose, pitch packages to mail out and email campaigns to develop. But it’s hard to build a meaningful business relationship with someone through a letter or email– real estate is a people business after all.So I really had to push myself out of my comfort zone a bit and not rely solely on business development and marketing. I recently went to a conference in Orlando that was targeted to my business niche and in four days, did the amount of networking it would take six months to do back at home! There is no substitute for a firm handshake and looking someone in the eye. And when you have something relevant and intelligent to say, they will remember you.
Ceniza-Levine: What do you know now about making a change or your new career that you wished you knew when you started this process?
Rhow: Though I thought I had mentally prepared myself for this career change, two things sobered me up pretty quickly. Firstly, seeing how long it was between commission checks was quite a reality check and very stressful to someone who had always worked in the corporate world.Secondly, I wish I had understood more at the beginning how long it can take to really make this a successful career. It can take most people several years to earn a healthy salary – though of course it varies person to person. I had no idea the amount of time it would take to gain the level of success I wanted to achieve. Now that I’ve had my eyes opened a bit, I’m more realistic about the process and less hard on myself for not having things happen so quickly. I keep reminding myself of the saying that success is a journey, not the destination. But in the end, I am so glad I made this change because every day is interesting and new – never a dull moment!
The last point I want to make is how crucial it is to find a firm that matches your own personal “brand”. I feel very fortunate that I’ve joined Engel & Völkers because their global luxury image perfectly matches my own previous business experience in the luxury industry. Plus it is a great working environment.
Ceniza-Levine: What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career change?
Rhow: The first thing I would advise anyone contemplating a change is to be prepared to work tremendously hard and to be humble about learning. You’ve got to lose your ego. No matter how naturally smart you are or how successful you were in a previous career, there is a tremendous learning curve involved in major career transitions and you have to be strong enough to risk looking foolish and inexperienced. You will make many mistakes at the beginning and ask lots of stupid questions – it’s natural. So if that scenario makes you run the other way – you may not have the stomach to handle an extreme change.
Another piece of advice I would give is how invaluable good interpersonal skills are. Without them you probably won’t make it. When you embark on a huge new learning curve, being personable and likeable go a long way towards other people wanting to help you. Make sure you are kind and respectful to everyone, regardless of where they land on the company hierarchy.
My last piece of advice is to learn how to “tune out” naysayers and negativity.Have a tunnel vision when it comes to achieving what you want to accomplish. Often times negative people’s comments are more a reflection of their own disappointments and failure than on your chances of success. So put your blinders on and be focused on the success you envision for yourself – and go for it!!
My favorite takeaways from Susanne:
Build off your strengths
Susanne piggybacked off of her existing knowledge of luxury and her international experience – “one brings the best from their previous experiences to their new career.”
Embrace the opportunity
Susanne knew that her new real estate career was commission rather than salary so she prepared for the volatility of it, while appreciating the upside -- “It is also liberating to be truly entrepreneurial and earn what you are worth – you aren’t at the mercy of budget cuts or lack of bonus opportunities.”
Don’t blindly follow conventional advice
Rather than stick to a neighborhood specialty like most agents do, Susanne selected business niches to pursue -- “What in my past could I leverage to truly set myself apart? How could I be smarter and more efficient in growing my business than the average new salesperson?”
Push out of your comfort zone and network
Susanne was an experienced marketer but it only got her so far. She also needed to directly network with her prospective clients – “There is no substitute for a firm handshake and looking someone in the eye.”
Tune out the naysayers
“Have a tunnel vision when it comes to achieving what you want to accomplish. Often times negative people’s comments are more a reflection of their own disappointments and failure than on your chances of success. So put your blinders on and be focused on the success you envision for yourself – and go for it!!”
This article previously appeared on Forbes.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career and business coach with SixFigureStart®. She has coached executives from Amazon, American Express, eBay, Goldman Sachs, Google, McKinsey, Tesla, and other leading firms. Her latest book is Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career (Forbes Media, 2015). She also writes a weekly advice column on Forbes (where this post originally appeared).
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